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As Pierre Poilievre aims to rebuild a ‘broken’ Canada, ads aim to soften his image


A pile of puzzle pieces spills onto a table.


“Everything feels broken,” Pierre Poilievre says in a voice-over as the shot tightens in on the federal Conservative leader’s face as he appears to be concentrating on sorting the pieces in his palm.


He has repeated that line countless times in speeches, on social media and at rallies, but now he is doing so in a slick 29-second advertisement. It is one of several the party rolled out this week as part of a campaign, worth more than $3 million, throughout the rest of the summer and into the fall.


The ad seeks to sell a hopeful message: Canada can be fixed — and Poilievre is the leader to do it.


But first Canadians need to trust him.


All prime ministerial hopefuls need to convince voters they are worth their time. But polling has suggested the number of people who have a negative impression of Poilievre is relatively high for an opposition leader, although recent polling has some in the party optimistic.


The ads are an attempt to boost his image at a time when Poilievre approaches his one-year anniversary of becoming Conservative leader. The party is also preparing to showcase Poilievre as prime minister material at next month’s policy convention in Quebec City.


Kate Harrison, a vice-chair at Summa Strategies and party activist, says the ad campaign is a way for the party to define Poilievre before the federal Liberals do it in a way that suits their political fortunes come election time.


“Voters are keen to know what their politicians’ motivations are,” she said, which she noted is something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been good at doing. “This is about explaining his motivation for wanting this job.”


Trudeau has used several public announcements this summer as a chance to ratchet up his attacks on Poilievre, accusing him of fuelling anger and division and wanting to tear the country down.


That evokes memories of Poilievre’s polarizing support for last year’s “Freedom Convoy,” which is what the Conservative leader is now trying to counter. He speaks often about how he grew up the adopted son of two school teachers in Calgary and then married a Venezuelan immigrant with whom he is raising two young kids.


The party insists the ad campaign, shot months ago, is not about introducing a new version of the leader who first became a member of Parliament nearly 20 years ago and quickly developed a reputation as a partisan attack dog. Rather, they view it as amplifying the man those closest to Poilievre know him to be.


“This is about broadening the support base and reaching a new audience that maybe don’t know very much about him,” said longtime Conservative strategist Melanie Paradis.


That includes women, particularly those 50 and older. Conservatives see them continuing to stick with the Liberals, which is a problem when it comes to battleground ridings such as in the Greater Toronto Area.


“The softening of the female vote the Conservatives have seen, it’s been largely older women, which is a new, relatively new, phenomenon … so I think that this is trying to get some of that back,” Paradis said.


Research shows that in general, female voters tend to gravitate toward leaders with a gentler, less brash tone, said Philippe Fournier of 338Canada.com, which publishes a statistical model of electoral projections based on polling, demographics and elections history.


He says the gender gap in politics has been widening. Canadian women are increasingly parking their vote with the NDP and Liberals, while the Conservatives are leading among men.


Beloved by the Conservative base for his unapologetic attacks against Trudeau, Poilievre enjoys sizable popularity among men aged 18 to 35. But Fournier points to recent Abacus Data polling that shows the Conservatives ahead of the Liberals for women.


“If he’s tied with women in the next election, he’s going to become prime minister,” Fournier said, added that Poilievre also needs to win over women if he hopes to form a majority government.


Convincing more women to vote Conservative remains a “work in progress,” said Harrison.


She said she has seen a shift in the party’s messaging on the economy, focusing less on debt levels and more on household finances, which she suggests better resonates with women.


“If we broaden the scope and think about policies that impact women, certainly the economy does,” Paradis added.


“Women are the ones who are making decisions in the grocery stores. Women are the ones who are paying the household bills.”


She suggests women are likely open to Poilievre’s promises on cost-of-living issues, but “for a while it’s been this question of tone.”


Besides softening his speech, Poilievre has also ditched the glasses and suits for the summer, sporting a more casual look.


His wife Anaida Poilievre, a former political staffer, is also often at his side.


That includes another set of ads that she narrates, where the couple is seen playing with their children. In the ads, she refers to herself as “a Canadian who came to call Canada home.”


Courting members from the Canada’s many ethnic diaspora communities has been a major focus for Poilievre since he became leader. His early days as leader saw him attending many cultural events with newcomer and immigrant communities around Toronto and Vancouver.


Anaida Poilievre has recently been speaking at events and roundtables with members of the Hispanic community. She also appeared alongside deputy Conservative leader Melissa Lantsman at an event in Vaughan, Ont., on “empowering Conservative women.”


She told the crowd that the people she meets at rallies, who wait in line for a photo with her husband, are “misunderstood.” They are not angry, but hurting.


“It’s pain from feeling you work hard, you work hard, and you can’t get ahead,” she said.


She referred to the experience of her father, who immigrated to Montreal in 1995 with her mother and three siblings. He gave up his business and worked instead for minimum wage at a grocery store.


Last year, when she took the stage to introduce her husband as the next Conservative leader, she said her father thought to himself: “It did not go in vain.”


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 12, 2023.

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